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Navio Kwok is the vice-president of research and marketing at Kilberry Leadership Advisors, a firm of management psychologists based in Toronto and New York that specializes in executive assessments and C-level leadership advisory.

Over the past several years, a number of high-profile workplaces have tested a four-day workweek with great success, creating a business case for others to follow.

There are two approaches to a shorter workweek, both of which leave an employee’s weekly salary intact. In one, the workweek remains an average of 40 hours, resulting in longer-than-typical workdays. The other approach is to reduce the workweek to 32 hours, resulting in four unchanged, eight-hour workdays.

In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based firm that manages trusts, wills, and estates, reported a number of benefits to reducing the workweek to four eight-hour days, including a 20-per-cent increase in productivity.

A year later, Microsoft Japan reported a 40-per-cent increase in productivity during their four-day workweek experiment, and a 2021 study out of Iceland found that a reduced workweek led to the same or improved productivity levels and greater worker well-being.

Nurses at a seniors’ facility in Gothenburg, Sweden, experimented in 2016 with shorter, six-hour shifts. Not only did they take fewer sick days and get more hours of sleep, but patients also felt they received better care.

So what is driving the shorter workweek’s success? The linchpin appears to be a concentrated effort to cut busywork – work for the sake of work that bogs employees down and inhibits their productivity. Among the recommendations in the report on the Iceland study were to hold “fewer, shorter, more focused meetings” and “replacing meetings with e-mails, where possible.”

New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian reduced meetings from two hours to 30 minutes and created mechanisms for employees to let colleagues know they need time to work without distraction. At Microsoft Japan, almost half of all meetings were cut from 60 to 30 minutes and standard attendance for all meetings were capped at five employees – the company said there is often no reason for multiple people from the same team be tied up.

Although the reduction of busywork can help make a four-day week possible, there are other outcomes worth pursuing.

For instance, Google’s 80/20 rule, in which employees are allowed to take 20 per cent of their time to work on side projects, is what led to products like Gmail and Google News. But that approach eventually fell by the wayside and employees were putting in 20 per cent more time. Those projects became something they did in addition to their full workload.

By cutting the busywork, the 80/20 rule could actually be implemented as intended, while also facilitating worker well-being. Busywork makes burnout worse, but when individuals are absorbed in work that excites them, they enter “the zone,” where they are fully immersed and energized, with no regard for the amount of effort they are putting in.

But also consider the potential downsides to the four-day workweek model.

Research led by Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University professor who studied the oft-cited claim that it takes 10,000 hours to be able to excel at something, found that even experts cannot engage in more than four to five hours a day of sustained attention on a task. If we ask employees to maintain a 40-hour workweek with one less day, how can we expect them to be productive with longer workdays?

In the experiment with Swedish nurses, the move to shorter shifts led to an increase in hiring costs of 20 to 30 per cent to make up for the hours that the nurses were no longer working.

“Could we do this for the entire municipality? The answer is no, it will be too expensive,” said Daniel Bernmar, the councillor responsible for Gothenburg’s elderly care, in an interview with the BBC.

Additionally, not everyone would have the option of a four-day workweek, potentially creating a sense of unfairness among workers.

“The person who drives your kids’ school bus or the person who is ensuring your hotel room is clean doesn’t get to take that fifth day off,” said Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group, a New York-based HR consulting firm, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. And what about teachers, first responders, and hospital doctors and nurses? The list goes on.

The limited existing research also primarily focuses on knowledge workers, making it unrepresentative of the general working population. For instance, participants in the Iceland-based study were mainly in desk jobs and worked entirely in the country’s public sector.

Better productivity and work-life balance are critical. But requiring large, private-sector employers to offer a four-day work week – as California’s now-stalled proposed law would do – without a thoughtful understanding of the process and its unpredictable consequences, will not get the results you are looking for.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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